How to Give Teachers the Feedback They Need
Teachers need great feedback: But do school leaders have what they need to give it?
By Dr. Michael Moody
It seems that new research emerges nearly every day underscoring the connections between not only student achievement and teacher quality, but also teacher quality and high impact observation and feedback. Put simply, great feedback leads to teacher growth, and stronger teachers lead to higher student achievement.
Until recently, however, few have stopped to really think about what great feedback and support for teachers really looks like, and perhaps even more importantly, where it comes from. In most systems, it's up to school leaders to conduct observations and provide growth-based feedback to teachers.
But do school leaders really have the support they need to make that happen?
According to a poll of school leaders conducted by SmartBrief and Insight Education Group earlier this year, nearly two-thirds acknowledged that systems in place at their schools - particularly observation and evaluation processes - do not work to improve instruction or promote teacher growth.
Unsettling as it may be, this data shouldn't be too surprising. Traditional observation and evaluation systems are often difficult for school leaders to effectively implement for three reasons:
1. Time. The demands on school leaders are greater than ever, leaving less time for observations and high quality feedback and follow-up with teachers. In Leverage Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo suggests that school leaders spend 25% of their time on observation and feedback. Though research shows this is ideal, it can be unrealistic and overwhelming for school leaders without the right support.
2. Content. Observers sometimes lack the content-area expertise needed to provide relevant, practical feedback to teachers, particularly as new standards are introduced. An observer with a background in English, for example, is not likely prepared or able to provide meaningful feedback to an Algebra teacher.
3. Acceptance. Research from Harvard's Center for Education Policy Best Foot Forward Project suggests that many teachers believe classroom-based observations are inherently subjective and biased. As a result, teachers may dismiss the feedback they do receive and fail to grow from the process.
However, according to a report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings released earlier this year, if these challenges can be overcome, school leaders can use observations and feedback to significantly accelerate educator growth.
So now the question is how?
Finding ways to make observations work
When it comes to observation and feedback processes, school leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated with the present challenges of observation and are in need of support. The good news is that there are two compelling ideas that are already being put to work in schools across the country - and they're working
I've been talking about the potential of classroom video to spur teacher growth a lot lately, and it's clear that educators see it, too. When school leaders were asked if they thought classroom video would help them provide teachers with better feedback and support, an overwhelming 85% of school leaders polled said yes. And teachers agree. When asked if video would be beneficial to their practices, 94% said yes.
This is really promising news, because recent research has shown that video can mitigate the challenges school leaders often face with observations, such as a lack of time or content-area expertise.
What's more, with the ability to pause and rewind, video provides evidence and a common reference point for both teachers and observers. As a result, feedback can be more thoughtful, specific and objective, enabling teachers to accept feedback and grow from it. Recent research from Harvard's Best Foot Forward Project shows that teachers perceived observers as being more supportive, and school leaders felt that teachers were less defensive and objectionable to feedback.
Video also makes it possible for lessons to be shared with multiple observers within the district to increase the validity of ratings and quality of feedback. What's more, video helps teachers initiate the growth process on their own through self-reflection and peer collaboration.
Qualified outside observers
Earlier this year, New York State made headlines by requiring - among other measures - two observations per year for teachers as part of a new evaluation system. What's particularly notable about this reform is that one of these observations must be conducted by an outside, independent evaluator.
While feelings amongst educators are clearly mixed on the issue, the law addresses some very real challenges of observation and feedback systems. In particular, the use of qualified third party observers can help guard against score inflation and bias. A study from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, Evaluation Teachers with Classroom Observations: Lessons Learned in Four Districts, concluded that in order to ensure impartiality within evaluation systems, outside observers should be used for at least one observation per year.
However, possibilities and potential benefits of using independent observers extend far beyond simply reducing bias.
Outside observers can offer teachers content-area expertise and relevant feedback that is essential for improving practices. Again, it's impossible for one principal to have a strong background in every content area. In addition, external observers make it possible for principals to spend less time on paperwork and more time on what matters the most for their teachers and students.
How can district leaders support their school leaders in observation?
There's no doubt that student achievement is tied to teacher quality, and teacher quality is largely dependent upon the quality of feedback and support they receive. But we can't forget about where this support is coming from. School leaders must invest in their own professional learning and explore new resources, like video and external observers, in order to implement truly growth-based observation systems that move teachers practices -and ultimately - student achievement.
About Dr. Michael Moody
Dr. Michael Moody is the founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. His experiences as a classroom teacher, school and district administrator, and consultant have given him a unique perspective on both the challenges and opportunities in education today. Dr. Moody regularly shares his expertise and thoughts on the Insight Education Group blog. He tweets at @DrMichaelMoody.